Climate Proof Your Garden
With so many of us rediscovering the immediate benefits of gardening during the coronavirus lockdown, it’s easy to overlook the long-term climate change crisis.
But there are simple steps we can all take now in our gardens that will make a big difference.
In the search for a glimmer of normality and a sense of hope for the future, it isn’t surprising that the nation has turned to gardening when faced with the coronavirus lockdown.
And the weekly applause emanating from our doorsteps suggests we’ve become acutely aware of the need for the caring and nurturing skills being shown in our hospitals and schools.
But the current crisis isn’t the only global challenge we face. In the Government’s Spring Budget and the initial financial provision to deal with Covid-19, funding was announced for initiatives to combat climate change, the biggest threat to humanity and life on our planet.
The UK has also passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 and to prepare for the harsh impacts of climate change, in response to findings set out in the Committee on Climate Change’s Net Zero report (May 2019) and Reducing UK Emissions progress report (July 2019).
Such news has understandably been knocked off pole position in the light of daily updates and health advice concerning Covid-19. Still, at the same time, there are some sobering and graphic climate-related outcomes resulting from the lockdowns and restrictions on travel.
Most notable is the massive reduction in particulate and greenhouse gas emissions from our transport infrastructure and manufacturing, as our journeys and lifestyles have been restricted.
Meanwhile, in China, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell by a quarter during the lockdown, although levels have risen quickly as its economy returns to normal.
There will be more monitoring and analysis over the weeks and months to come, and it will undoubtedly reveal more about the scale of what needs to be done to mitigate climate change.
This will also give an insight into how we need to adapt our habits and day-to-day lives.
Even if we cut all emissions around the world tomorrow, the number of greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere will mean a continued rise in global temperatures long into the future.
And as a result of previous emissions, we’ve already seen changes to overall climate and weather patterns worldwide and here in the UK.
All ten of the UK’s warmest years on record, for example, have been since 2002, according to the Met Office.
But it’s not just overall atmospheric temperatures that are increasing. A warming world means there’s more energy to drive the climate systems, giving rise to extreme events such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes as weather patterns change.
So far in the UK, the most recent decade (2008-17) has been on average 0.8°C warmer than the 1961-90 average.
That might not sound much, but for UK gardeners and growers, this has been enough to extend the length of our growing season, delay the onset of the first frosts and cause plants to flower earlier in spring.
As for the changes to come, predictions vary widely depending on the world’s ability to control greenhouse gas emissions.
But modeling from the Met Office Hadley Centre predicts that UK average winter temperatures may be as much as 4.2°C higher and summer temperatures up to 5.4°C higher than the 1961-80 average by the end of the century.
In addition, we are likely to see higher rainfall in winter and lower levels in
summer, coupled with an increase in the current regional differences from west to east across the UK.
The predictions also suggest a 25 percent increase in intense and long-lasting rainfall events.
Meanwhile, frost and snow will continue to become less prevalent, although they can’t be ruled out.
It’s not hard to see what such changes will mean to gardeners and their growing ambitions – whether it be a window box, balcony, urban patio, or rolling rural acres.
And while the changes may seem gradual, the need to urgently cut our greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the climate changes to come has never been greater.
What can we do?
The Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden Matters: the urban garden is a useful guide to how our gardens can help moderate temperatures, combat flooding, support biodiversity and maintain human health.
Meanwhile, Gardening in a Changing Climate looks at the UK climate change and weather projections and how they will affect our gardens.
Meanwhile, understanding how soils and plants work, increasing your plant knowledge, developing an appreciation of the microclimate and prevailing conditions in your local area, as well as honing your gardening and growing skills will all help you cope with the challenges to come.
Observing and adapting is, after all, what we gardeners do!
10. Ways To Climate Proof Your Garden
1. Create multilayered plantings
Plants help thwart extremes of temperature in their surroundings by generating shadows and entrapping air among their vegetation.
Also, covering buildings with plants – climbers, wall shrubs, and green roofs – protects them from extremes of heat and cold, reducing energy use on heating and cooling systems.
2. Grow your own
Recycling garden waste at the source in your garden is the ultimate in sustainability.
The alternative of taking it to a tip or using a local authority collection scheme involves carbon-emitting vehicles and equipment, even when the waste is turned into compost.
Making your means, you’ll also buy less bagged compost and mulch – both of which need to be transported to your garden and also have ‘hidden.’ carbon emissions in their production and distribution.
3. Collect rainwater
Treating our mains water to make it drinkable and pumping it to our homes use energy.
So why waste tap water on plants? Instead, fit water butts to all your downpipes, from house roofs, sheds, and greenhouses, to collect as much rain as possible.
The less mains water we all use, the more energy is saved, reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
4. Install permeable paving
Using rolled gravel or porous paving allows rain to soak into the ground, reducing run-off and flash flooding during downpours.
You can also incorporate planting pockets into hard surfaces, so run-off flows into them rather than into drains. This will also top up your water table, helping your plants to survive future dry spells.
5. Make your own compost
Recycling garden waste at the source in your own garden is the ultimate in sustainability.
The alternative of taking it to a tip or using a local authority collection scheme involves carbon-emitting vehicles and equipment, even when the waste is made into compost.
Making your own means, you’ll also buy less bagged compost and mulch – both of which need to be transported to your garden and also have ‘hidden’ carbon emissions in their production and distribution.
6. Use water to moderate temperatures
Adding a large or medium-sized pond to your garden will help to lessen the extremes of temperature.
The water heats up and cools down at a slower rate than air, moderating its atmosphere.
Victorian head gardeners knew this and put tanks of water in their glasshouses to cool the air in summer and keep off the worst of the frosts in winter.
7. Prepare your plants for survival
In the light of climate change, we need to adapt how we feed and water plants.
Nitrogen-rich fertilizer encourages soft growth prone to wilting, sun scorch, and frost damage and more vulnerable to pests and diseases. But potash-rich feed makes plants more resilient.
When watering, give a long soak that goes down into the soil, so plant roots go deep too, where it’s cool and damp.
8. Mulch your soil rather than digging
Leaving soil undisturbed and mulching with organic matter mimics what happens in woodlands with fallen leaves in autumn.
This no-dig method lessens the oxidization of organic matter, which releases CO2, and also helps to preserve the myriad microorganisms that keep soil healthy and, in turn, help to store CO2 in the soil.
9. Plant in the ground
Plants in containers need more watering, feeding, and maintenance than those in the ground, looking after themselves more easily.
It’s more sustainable to grow plants in the ground or, if you can’t, then to only use the largest containers, at least 50cm wide and deep.
10. Choose permanent over temporary
Long-lived trees, shrubs, and to a lesser extent, hardy herbaceous plants take in CO2 from the air and store it in their stems or branches or secrete it into the soil through their roots.
By contrast, summer bedding plants are planted and removed in quick succession. They are raised in heated glasshouses that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions – unless the heat is from renewable sources.